What do you do when it’s all falling apart and you feel as if trying to save your marriage is an uphill climb? What if you’re not fighting just the blues or boredom, but something more inherently problematic? Do you know how to survive an unhealthy marriage while also working to make it better?
Every couple wants the sizzle to last, even though they know that a certain amount of monotony will sneak in. That’s just the nature of familiarity and the price of being with one person for the rest of your life.
All those crazy, sleep-depriving, romance-obsessed hormones have done their job. And, predictably, they eventually take leave and give way to sustainability. (Thank God!)
Before diving into tips for how to survive an unhealthy marriage, a few distinctions are in order.
Just as with photography, the gray scale can make transitions in relationships so nuanced that you barely notice them. Even black and white have degrees of intensity, often noticeable only in direct comparison.
So, what’s the point of applying the science of art to the science (and art) of marriage?
If you’re going to work on making your marriage better, it’s important to recognize what needs work…and why.
You don’t need to know exactly what the final edition will look like, as even that will constantly evolve.
You don’t even need to know all the details of how your marriage got to where it is.
But you do need to know where you are at this moment.
Recognizing and acknowledging your own feelings, behaviors, reactions, and choices will help you zero in on that gray scale.
Are you unhappy? Bored? Tired? Frustrated?
Have you and your spouse stopped talking about anything but kids, work, and weather?
Do you exhale a big sigh of relief when one of you has to go on a business trip?
Do you and your spouse bicker, fuss, criticize, blame, and fight instead of cooperating and collaborating on mutual goals?
Has sex fallen into a bygone era?
Are any of the three Toxic A’s — affairs, addiction, excessive anger — present?
These are important questions that will help you determine if your marriage is unhealthy or toxic — or simply needing some spring cleaning and TLC.
Telling you how to survive an unhealthy marriage while also working to make it better is going to focus on (no surprise) you.
Click your heels together three times and repeat after me: “The only person I can control is myself. The only person I can control is myself….”
Does that mean you can’t talk about all those maddening, hurtful, selfish things your spouse does that are (obviously) at the root of all your problems?
What it does mean is that how you talk about them matters.
And, more importantly, what you recognize in yourself — and how you change what needs to be changed — matters most of all.
This is about “survival,” right? And survival is about getting from point A to point A-½ with more hope than you had half a step ago.
It’s also about getting down to essentials: knowing what to let go of, what to keep, and what to seek.
And the easiest place to start is with “stop.” Stop anything that’s destructive, inflammatory, unkind, sarcastic, avoidant, aggressive (even passively), critical.
Behave as if everything you do is about how to survive an unhealthy marriage…even if you don’t stay married.
Your goal may be to survive with your marriage intact, but, again, all you can control is yourself.
So how do you want you to look/feel/behave as a relationship partner? If you were designing your ideal relationship, what would your contribution look like, regardless of your partner’s contribution?
Think back to when you were falling in love with your spouse.
How did you communicate? It was probably pretty easy and gratifying, wasn’t it?
You listened attentively. You weren’t threatened by a difference of opinion/feeling/need, but instead reflected upon the different viewpoint.
You likely accepted responsibility — both for initiating kind and loving gestures and for assuming responsibility when you were wrong.
You made time for your partner, even when it wasn’t convenient, because you wanted to be together. You also knew that quality time together was essential to the strength of your relationship.
You sought cooperative solutions. You intuitively recognized when your partner’s happiness or well-being was more important than having your own way. And you knew that compromise usually got you far more than what you wanted in the first place.
You probably also took good care of yourself, knowing that how you presented yourself was a gift to both your partner and yourself.
Before you assume that surviving your unhealthy marriage is all about you…well, you would be right.
And your spouse’s survival is all about him or her.
The point is, you have a choice at every juncture in your life. Every interaction is a fork in the road — a point of decision about what kind of person you are going to be. How do you want to feel about yourself and the power of your own choices to influence the quality of your life?
Only when you are holding up your own end of the deal will you be able to discern the salvageability of any relationship.
And the big takeaway in that message is how incredibly powerful you are. You can effect change for the better, just as you can affect your marriage for the worse.
By committing to your own self-awareness and -improvement and communicating your concerns in a healthy way with your spouse, survival becomes possible.
And, assuming your spouse also wants to restore your marriage, survival goes from possible to probable. You can, believe it or not, fix an unhealthy marriage and get that loving feeling back.
The days of first falling in love may be over. Children, grandchildren, mortgages, losses, seeing one another at your worst — the challenges and mundane of life aren’t very infatuating.
But falling in love again — in a renewed, mature, sustainable way — is both possible and necessary. And, in the long run, it’s the key for how to survive an unhealthy marriage together.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a life and divorce coach who helps people, just like you, who are struggling with an unhappy marriage. For immediate help, you can download your FREE copy of "Contemplating Divorce? Here's What You Need To Know." And if you’re interested in working with me personally, you can book an introductory 30-minute private coaching session with me.